Mercy for sale?
Question: I recently heard a passage where Jesus says, “Give alms and all will be forgiven you.” I am not sure where it comes from. But it sounds like he is saying we can buy forgiveness. Is this so?
— John Jackson, Vero Beach, Florida
Answer: The passage you cite is from Luke’s Gospel and reads, “But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (Lk 11:41). The Lord was speaking to the Pharisees about their tendency to focus on externals, not the heart. And thus he tells them to cultivate a more generous heart as the truer way to purity than, say, wearing certain robes or washing certain vessels. Thus giving alms does not purchase forgiveness, but it does help purify our heart before the day of judgment.
Other passages do speak to the fact that we can influence how the Lord judges us one day through our use of worldly goods. They stop short of showing that forgiveness can be purchased, but they do indicate that part of our judgment will hinge on how we have treated the poor and others in need of mercy. Thus the Lord says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Lk 16:9). Some translations say “they may receive you into eternal dwellings,” the “they” referring to the poor whom we have befriended through generosity. They will speak on our behalf before the judgment seat and say, in effect, “Be merciful to him, Lord. He was merciful to us.” The heavenly judge cannot be bought by money, but he can be swayed by the poor.
Jesus says elsewhere, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). He also says, “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Lk 6:38). Hence, while God will judge us justly and cannot be bought off, part of his justice is to use the standards we use to deal with others. If we have been merciful, we will be shown mercy. But James warns, “For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13).
So, be merciful and generous. God’s justice is not for sale. But his justice does include treating us as we treated others.
Venerating the cross
Question: The Good Friday veneration of the cross takes too long. In our parish it took more than a half an hour. We used to have more than one station, and people would venerate several crucifixes. Our new clergy insist on using one. What can be done?
— Name withheld via email
Answer: The clergy in your parish are right to insist on one cross. While the personal adoration of the cross is important, the instructions also indicate that “only one cross” should be used for adoration. So, if the numbers are so great that all cannot come forward, after some of the clergy and faithful have adored the cross, the instructions say that the celebrant can take the cross and stand in the center before the altar. He then elevates the cross higher for a brief period of time while the faithful adore it in silence (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Good Friday, No. 19). Thus you might ask the clergy to examine this possibility.
There is also the possibility of simply accepting that the Good Friday service is not brief and that a time of extended prayer and meditation is appropriate. The matter involves a prudential judgment that considers the common good and the purpose of the liturgy.